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Newsline 20 February 2015

We've received a record number of nominations for this year's Secularist of the Year prize. We've had recommendations from all over the world for all kinds of people – activists, writers, broadcasters and journalists. All of them are worthy of the prize, but only one can win it. Join us at the awards ceremony in London on Saturday 28 March to find out who the winner is. Tickets include a three course meal and cocktail and cost just £40 for NSS members, and £50 for non-members. Book your tickets today!

Secularists stand up for LGBT equality in Northern Ireland

Secularists stand up for LGBT equality in Northern Ireland

News | Fri, 20 Feb 2015

The NSS has objected to proposed changes to Northern Ireland's equality laws which would allow businesses to refuse services to LGBT customers on the grounds of "strongly held religious convictions".

Charlie Hebdo: a perspective one month on

Charlie Hebdo: a perspective one month on

Opinion | Wed, 18 Feb 2015

25 years after the Rushdie Affair, one month after the atrocities in Paris and days after the attack on a free speech seminar in Copenhagen, Sadikur Rahman looks at what lessons free expression activists and opponents have taken.

Another European city, this time Copenhagen, has been attacked because it had the temerity to host a small talk about free speech and cartoons. Two more people have lost their lives, and two more families have been left devastated. One person was killed at the event, whilst the other was targeted because he was Jewish, a recurring target for Islamist fundamentalists.

The reaction in the UK press to the Copenhagen attack has been muted, perhaps because we're getting so used to these attacks and it is no longer a surprise. Much of the reporting has been deeply troubling. The BBC, for example, constantly referred to the "controversial" cartoonist Lars Vilks. Despite the fact that only those objecting to freedom of expression would find him controversial, they deliberately chose to use this terminology. One LBC reporter even asked "whether it was wise to host a debate on free speech". It seems to me that nothing has been learned from the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

The Charlie Hebdo murders were a critical moment. We will reflect back on the attack as a turning point. In the future, those bemoaning the loss of free speech and expression will say we should have taken more action now, been more robust, less scared of the fanatics, and less polite and squeamish about printing the cartoons. But now it is too late. Instead, the attacks could have been a turning point in getting blasphemy laws repealed around the world.

It is much like the Salman Rushdie Satanic Verses protests in 1991, one can trace many Islamist movements and the increasing religious awareness of British Muslims from that moment. It was then that the forces of Islamism and the anti-blasphemy lobby cut their teeth. Many now look back at that pivotal moment and believe that we should have been less willing to tolerate the protests against that book. Had society and the press been more willing to defend the right to offend and freedom of expression when these movements were still in their infancy, perhaps we would not be where we are today. Instead, most of the press seemed to blame Rushdie for having written 'offensive' material in the first place.

Although there was initially an outpouring of solidarity and sympathy in the Paris marches it has still not led to any sense of safety in being able to publish simple pictures. On the contrary, there seems to be a new turning away from support of the cartoonists, with statements qualifying the right to free expression by saying that we should be sensitive to religious and cultural feelings.

Apart from one or two exceptions, few mainstream papers in the UK or America published the pictures. This shows how much success the killers have had. The position has now been reached whereby no one will publish these pictures both because of safety fears and because it will be seen that unless the story deserves it there is no need to cause 'offence'. They are being constantly published on the internet, but mainly by campaigning groups in support of free expression and of course to some extent that can be done anonymously. Without strength in numbers and spreading the danger around, so few are expected to shoulder the burden of free speech for so many.

Just last week there was a demonstration organised by the Muslim Action Forum outside Downing Street against the publication of the cartoon by Charlie Hebdo- the organisers in fact gave thanks to the British press, which had respected the protestors' views. The prevailing mood seems to be that although we have the right publish these pictures, we should not in fact exercise that right and specifically we should not criticise religion. Whether that is because of fear or a genuine wish not to offend is irrelevant. It means that, in fact, the right to free expression is lost and we have truly censored ourselves.

After the Charlie Hebdo incident there was much talk that somehow secularism itself was to blame. It was implied that the French state in its insistence on secularist principles was too aggressive and played into the hands of Islamist militants, by banning the Niqab in public for instance. It was argued that this somehow led to a sense of alienation which nurtured fundamentalist, nihilistic attitudes amongst some members of the Muslim population. This all ignores of course the fact that it was cartoonists who were specifically targeted, which suggests that it had nothing to do with alienation or racism, and everything to do with Islam's prohibition on depictions of the Prophet.

Of course there are no easy solutions, but I would suggest two ways of moving forward. The first is of course an internal debate within Islam, which to some extent outsiders will have very little input on, other than to wholeheartedly support the likes of Majid Nawaz and other reformers. Many Muslims have tried to show that the depictions of the Prophet were common in the past and that certainly seems to be the case. However, it is telling that often those articles are for the 'West's' consumption, namely an attempt to lecture the non-Muslims about the tolerant ideals of Islam and also to repeat the mantra that the murders had nothing to do with Islam. What these writers actually need to do is convince their many co-religionists (Taliban, Al-Qaeda, ISIS) that Islam can be a peaceful religion; Western leaders don't really seem to need much convincing of that.

There is now an articulate lobby which demands obedience to a de facto blasphemy law. We need to re-educate ourselves and be equally articulate and argue against such encroachments. This is even more important amongst the young, who are less religious but perhaps more politically correct, and who seem to view all ideas as equally valid. One need only view the actions of various student unions around the country in evidence of this.

Some of this needs to take place in the classroom and schools where fundamental ideas about our society are inculcated, ideas like free speech, human rights, democracy and secularism. We need to tackle all forms of non-violent extremism, because it is clear that this can lead to violence when left unchallenged. That is not to say we should ban things such as the veil, but we should be free to openly criticise the religious ideas behind them

Surely the lesson from France is not that there was too much secularism but there wasn't enough. It is simply not enough to have a secular government and secular policy, to solely concentrate on who is in power, or who is in government and to think that a change there will lead to a more secular society or the absence of religion from public life. That seems to me to be elitist. We need to disseminate and propagate secular principles to the public at large and be willing to engage in debate. We need to be willing to risk stating the obvious, starting from first principles- for example, explaining what it means to have freedom of expression. The French state has to convince many French Muslims of the values of secularism- they are not engaged; they are not challenged and they have been left to their own devices and many have fallen for fundamentalist ideas. We in the UK and Europe generally need to push secularism into the private sphere. And at risk of using religious language, we need to proselytise the values of secularism on a wider scale.

Is the Christian immune from plane crashes?

Is the Christian immune from plane crashes?

Opinion | Tue, 17 Feb 2015

Alistair McBay reports on Scottish Calvinism's attack on secularism, and offers his reaction to the rhetoric and tactics of the Free Church of Scotland.

The airline industry has had more than its fair share of tragedy recently, with the loss of many lives and many bereaved families and friends. The Air Malaysia MH370, Air Asia Flight 8501 and the more recent TransAsia crash have all reminded us of how precious life is.

Amid the despair around the second of those disasters in December last year, one man at least found some immediate cause for comfort. A Scottish Reverend was online within hours of the crash to pose the question "Is the Christian immune from plane crashes?" According to this Reverend, Christians "are sustained by the Word of God" and although not in fact immune from disaster, "know that nothing that happens to us is random and God uses all things for the good of those who love Him." And at the cost of the untimely demise of those who are massively indifferent to Him, it would seem! The Reverend later qualified this by saying that God did not actually crash planes Himself, but "is taking these random events and weaving them ultimately into something beautiful". But not for atheists apparently – the Reverend further concluded that the lives of any atheists on aeroplanes, or anywhere else, are "random and ultimately meaningless".

This was the Reverend David Robertson of the Free Church of Scotland, who recently received the accolade of being one of the UK's most influential Christians for "highlighting the flaws in secular lobby groups" and is a Director of Solas, the Scottish Centre for Public Christianity (charitable purpose – the advancement of religion). So his comments above should be considered in the context of a man with a high public profile as a mouthpiece for Christianity. Some have described him as a new John Knox, and indeed his church continues with its idol worship of that original scourge of Catholicism. This reincarnation after the death of the first Knox nearly 450 years ago loathes secularists and everything we stand for. Forget 'that monstrous regiment of women' so excoriated by the original Knox – this new version's repeated trumpet blasts are about the monstrous regiment of secularists! We are usually indifferent to who leads religious organisations in Scotland, but David Robertson is a frequent and noisy critic of ours and persists in misrepresenting us, no matter how often his deceits are pointed out to him. Since he believes the biggest threat to Christianity is secular humanism, we are entitled to defend ourselves so here are the recurring themes in his criticisms of us.

First, Reverend Robertson never fails to describe us as militant, fundamentalist, extremist, fanatical or aggressive. Every secularist is by default an atheist and is apparently out to 'persecute' Christians at every turn. There are no religious secularists in David's world, which will doubtless be a shock for our friends at British Muslims for Secular Democracy. Christian primacy and supremacy in all things is what he demands, to defend against the 'militant secularists' whom he alleges want to drive Christianity and its heritage, not just its privileges, out of the public square and out of Scotland altogether. I know of no secularist who wants that, never mind anyone actively campaigning for it. Our own Secular Charter by which we operate says nothing about creating 'a Godless dictatorship in the Brave New World of modern Scotland.' I don't think I've misunderstood it.

Second, we are accused of denying Christians the right to raise their children in their Christian faith. In one Facebook debate, he said he wanted the Scottish taxpayer to fund a Christian education for 'Christian children' in state schools. I disagreed as I don't believe it's the function of state education to fund indoctrination of children in one religious ideology, although I support education about religion. To me, this was a disagreement between two people about the nature and purpose of taxpayer-funded education, but to the Reverend it was an example of a secularist denying him the right to raise his children in his faith and so 'persecuting' him.

Third, the Reverend makes much about Christian school provision in Scotland going back to the days of Knox, even writing to fellow Christian Alex Salmond in 2008 asking "Can we have our schools back?" He seems to think that the part of the education system the churches handed over to the State in 1872 was an inclusive and wonderful thing, but we know it was of poor quality, riddled with infighting between Christian sects (his own being one of them) whose inspection regime was more concerned with enforcing orthodoxy than anything else. The Reverend called for yet more dangerous apartheid in our schools by suggesting that atheist parents could start their own secular schools in a celebration of true diversity, as if segregating children and teaching them conflicting sets of values could lead to happily tolerant adults. He has stated bluntly that "the state education system should not be used for the social engineering experiments of the secular humanists", but of course demands just as bluntly that the same system is used for the social (and religious) engineering experiments of Christians.

Fourth, he criticises others as sectarian while not considering himself guilty of the same crime. He took offence to a description of Labour leader Jim Murphy as a 'religious fanatic', and duly whipped up a press campaign to claim Murphy was being targeted purely because of his Catholic faith. This was a crude attempt to exploit Scotland's Protestant versus Catholic sectarianism to drag secularists into the mire. However, Reverend Robertson has no problem with his own frequent reference to secularists as aggressive, militant and extreme. We are fair game to be targeted for our philosophical stance. Ironically, the Reverend leads a church that denies being sectarian when it proclaims Roman Catholic doctrines such as "Maryism" are "unbiblical", and "the impact they have on millions worldwide as a subversion of Apostolic Christianity are perilous to the faith of men and women". When Pope Benedict visited Scotland in 2010, the retired principal of the Free Church of Scotland College mocked "secular humanist Scotland" for being "suckers for funny costumes who love to see old men dressed in ancient Roman togas". Yet when a secularist refers to a Catholic as fanatical, the Reverend declares he is standing by "his Catholic brothers and sisters" against a 'secular attack'.

Finally, Reverend Robertson maintains that the Scottish Government has been ignoring Christians of late, which means Christians have been losing some arguments and they don't like it. An example was the Scottish Government's consultation on same-sex marriage. David Robertson called for a voter referendum, arguing among other things that same sex marriage would violate the rights of heterosexual couples under European and UK law. The Scottish Government conducted a consultation, the outcome of which many Christians persisted in misrepresenting as if it were indeed a 'Yes or No' referendum. The Free Church case was invited and heard, but its argument was not good enough – not the same as being ignored. However, the victim narrative held sway and we were told Jesus was being banished from the public square. But then the Reverend also says there is no room for Jesus in much of the Church, especially the Church of Scotland which he says has many atheists in its pews. By that we presume he means Christians who don't share his orthodoxy or (Heaven forbid) perhaps even Christians who support secularism. On one hand he enjoys mocking the Kirk for playing 'Fantasy Church', on the other he cries crocodile tears lamenting that the national church should be in such a parlous state.

So there you have the substance of David Robertson's attacks on secularism, atheism and secular humanism. There is one more thing people should know about David, and that is his claim to be the living proof that people can be healed in answer to prayer. A very lengthy post on his blog (you'll find an edited version here) describes his near death experience from a serious illness, and how just when he was at his lowest and doctors could do no more, a call to prayer was broadcast by his church. From then on, he started to get better and eventually made a full recovery. A true test of the efficacy of prayer would surely be if people who were seriously ill received no medical treatment at all for their ailments, to see if prayer alone worked to heal them. But as David Robertson explains, he thanks God for "giving us science and for all the means He uses, including doctors, nurses and the NHS."

I have no idea why David's God would wait thousands of years into the development of the humans that He allegedly created before allowing them to discover the drugs and procedures (eg antibiotics, anaesthetics, blood transfusions) that treated David Robertson's condition so successfully. He must be relieved at being born in the mid-20th century rather than mid 19th. He is entitled to his beliefs and to express them, but I can't rationalise why prayers should deliver clergy from acute illness but be so ineffective when uttered by believers in crashing aeroplanes. Knowing David's God is about to weave your imminent and violent demise into 'something beautiful' is scant consolation. I hope I am never in that position, but in my case it won't matter – after all, my life is 'random and ultimately meaningless'!

Alistair McBay is a member of the NSS Council. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

A duty to mock

A duty to mock

Opinion | Mon, 16 Feb 2015

Manfredi La Manna argues that the response to the Charlie Hebdo murders has exposed unpalatable truths in both the conservative and progressive camps.

The latest cack-handed intervention by the Pope, exempting religions from the list of acceptable targets for criticism and ridicule, while at the same time justifying religion-inspired retaliatory violence, is a powerful reminder that all religions, irrespective of their degree of barbarism and superstition, fear the emotional punch of satire even more than the cold force of logical argument. And for very good reasons.

Even more worryingly, the response from the liberal side has been timid at best and intellectually cowardly at worst (with occasional references to 'free speech fundamentalism'). Only a handful of commentators (Nick Cohen and Jonathan Freedland, for example) have hinted at the elephant in the room – the muted criticism of Islam is due chiefly to fear of violent physical reprisals – without asking why it is there at all. Even the most robust defences of free speech against religious-inspired terrorism speak of freedom of expression as a fundamental human right. None, as far as I can see, have referred to the criticism and the ridicule of religions as a duty of every liberal-minded individual. Before explaining why, a little puzzle may provide some background to my argument.

Consider the following eye-witness account of religion-inspired barbarism (I have redacted some salient words):

"In *** a young man, ***, was condemned and found guilty, together with other youths, of blasphemy and sacrilege. He was accused of causing damage to a ***, of singing anti-religious songs, and of showing disrespect to a religious procession. ***'s room was searched and a number of compromising books were found, including, it was alleged, *** ***. At the ensuing trial it was suggested that this book had exercised a corrupting influence on the young man, who was condemned to have his tongue torn out, to be beheaded (a concession, because he was a ***) and to have his body burned on a pyre along with a copy of the *** ***. This sentence was confirmed by a court in *** and *** was executed on the 1st of July ***, his body burned along with a copy of *** ***."

Where and when has this act of unspeakable cruelty as state-sanctioned punishment of the mildest expression of religious criticism taken place? Which repressive society burns books and tears tongues out? The above account does not refer to some Islamic theocracy or to some mediaeval Christian outburst of anti-heretical witch-hunting. It refers to a well-known episode in French history, which took place on the 1st of July 1766 in Picardy (with a subsequent trial in Paris). The unredacted text reads:

"In Abbeville in Picardy, a young man, the chevalier de La Barre, was condemned and found guilty, together with other youths, of blasphemy and sacrilege. He was accused of causing damage to a crucifix, of singing anti-religious songs, and of showing disrespect to a religious procession. La Barre's room was searched and a number of compromising books were found, including, it was alleged, [Voltaire's] Pocket Philosophical Dictionary. At the ensuing trial it was suggested that this book had exercised a corrupting influence on the young man, who was condemned to have his tongue torn out, to be beheaded (a concession, because he was a gentleman) and to have his body burned on a pyre along with a copy of the Pocket Philosophical Dictionary. This sentence was confirmed by a court in Paris and was executed on the 1st of July 1766, his body burned along with a copy of Pocket Philosophical Dictionary."

Notice the date (1766), over 100 years after the foundation of the Royal Society (the oldest scientific society in the world) and four years after the publication of Rousseau's 'The Social Contract' , the place (France), one of the most culturally advanced nations at the time, and the book (Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary), hardly an incendiary indictment of Christianity.

The barbaric execution of chevalier de La Barre shares many features with the brutal murders of the defenceless Charlie Hebdo staff by Islamists, but whereas the 1766 incident spurred intellectuals like Voltaire to redouble their criticisms and ridicule of religion, the 7th of January 2015 massacre has prompted legions of 'liberal' commentators to urge for restraint on the excessive use of free speech and to state that 'we need to cultivate a climate of respect for each other's religions'.

The reason why in France people are no longer persecuted for criticising and mocking religions was not the establishment of a 'climate of respect for religion', but rather the establishment of the secular principle of freedom to criticise, expose, and ridicule religious beliefs. Every single human right advancement in what we call Western civilisation has been fought against religion, not by appeasing it. Like Voltaire, I would defend the right of religious individuals to entertain the most absurd beliefs, from monkey gods to immaculate conceptions, from talking bushes to winged horses ascending to paradise. In return, I expect, indeed I demand, that my right to expose the absurdity of their pathetically irrational beliefs is left unchanged. There is no such thing as free speech fundamentalism, other than in the trivial sense that free speech is a fundamental right.

An interesting asymmetry can be noted here. Why do the religious appeasers vastly outnumber the unblinking critics and mockers of religions? With very few exceptions (the much-missed Christopher Hitchens being one), the secular side of the story is left untold and for a very simple and powerful reason: one of the greatest achievements of Western civilisation has been the decoupling of intellectual and physical courage. Whereas in religion-dominated societies the urge to challenge conventions, established ideas and norms could find expression only if coupled with a large dose of personal physical courage, nowadays the willingness to die for one's ideas and ideals is no longer required from intellectuals (or from anyone else).

As a result, secular liberal societies produce men and women of ideas who are totally unprepared to face the new and real threats to their personal incolumity. Far from being a failure, this should be celebrated as a great achievement. I would have thought it was a duty for political and social commentators to remind us of how this has been achieved and who fought against it, as the answer is desperately relevant to the current debate on free speech. Perhaps another little quiz may displace some unwarranted complacency. Which religious ruler issued over 48,000 fatwas (un-appealable sentences used as instruments of oppression) in his 17-year rule? If you are thinking of some Islamic ayatollah, you are on the wrong track. The religious oppressor is none other than the 'gentlest and mildest' (in Henry Fielding's apposite description) Cardinal Fleury, the de facto prime minister of France from 1726 to 1743. His fatwas, or lettres de cachet, are best described in Henry Fielding's inimitable prose:

"Give me Leave, therefore, to inform you, that the Person of a Frenchman is so far from being protected by their Laws from Imprisonment that they are every Day liable, without any Crime, nay, without any Accusation, to be seized by the Authority of a Lettre de Cachet, and conveyed not only to Prisons, but Dungeons, where their Friends and Relations neither know the Places of their Confinement, nor if they did, would have any Method of obtaining their Discharge, (however innocent) nor even of procuring Access to them. And as they may be sent to these Prisons without any Accusation, so may they be detained there without any Trial, often for many Years, and sometimes to the End of their Lives, however long Nature may be able to struggle with all the Miseries, Wants, and Inclemencies of a noisome Dungeon." (A Serious Address to the People of Great Britain, 1745 – any resemblance to Guantanamo Bay is purely coincidental.)

France has moved from religion-inspired arbitrary justice and judicial murder to the secular liberal country it is today not thanks to the cultivation of 'a climate of respect for each other's religions' as religious accommodationists would have us believe, but by upholding the principle of laïcité, relegating religions where they belong, to the sphere of personal beliefs, and excluding them from the realm of the political and the legal.

This is why the direct beneficiaries of free speech, first among them journalists, commentators, and 'engaged' intellectuals, should discharge their duty of keeping alive the long tradition of relentless criticism, mordant ridicule, and fearless mockery of religions, because it is precisely thanks to this criticism, ridicule, and mockery that we have freed ourselves from the yoke of theocratic dictatorship.

Dr Manfredi La Manna is a reader in economics at the University of St Andrews. This article was originally posted in Scottish Review and is reproduced here with permission.

Norman Bonney 1944 – 2015

Norman Bonney 1944 – 2015

News | Wed, 18 Feb 2015

We are sad to report the death of Prof. Norman Bonney on 13 February after a long illness, which caused him to resign last year from the NSS Council after four years' service.

Join us for Secularist of the Year 2015

Join us for Secularist of the Year 2015

Tickets are still available for the Secularist of the Year 2015 award ceremony and luncheon on Saturday 28 March. The awards will be presented by Guardian cartoonist and free speech advocate Martin Rowson. Please join us for this celebration of the brave campaigners and organisations taking a stand for secularism, equality and human rights.

NSS Speaks Out

NSS president Terry Sanderson spoke on Radio Five Live on Tuesday 17 February about the Church of England's letter on the 2015 General Election. Terry argued that it was inappropriate for the Church to involve itself in party politics. The full discussion can be listened to here and Terry can be heard from 19:35.

NSS spokesman for Scotland Alistair McBay was quoted in a Guardian piece on Church of England investment in fossil fuel companies. NSS president Terry Sanderson was also quoted in the article.

Additionally, our support for the end to religious exemptions for animal welfare laws was noted in a BBC article.

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